Evolutionary psychology of religion

The evolutionary psychology of religion is the study of religious belief using evolutionary psychology principles. It is one approach to the psychology of religion. As with all other organs and organ functions, the brain's functional structure is argued to have a genetic basis, and is therefore subject to the effects of natural selection and evolution. Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand cognitive processes, religion in this case, by understanding the survival and reproductive functions they might serve.[1]

Mechanisms of evolution

There is general agreement among scientists that a propensity to engage in religious behavior evolved early in human history. However, there is disagreement on the exact mechanisms that drove the evolution of the religious mind. There are two schools of thought. One is that religion itself evolved due to natural selection and is an adaptation, in which case religion conferred some sort of evolutionary advantage. The other is that religious beliefs and behaviors may have emerged as by-products of other adaptive traits without initially being selected for because of their own benefits.[2][3][4]

Religious behavior often involves significant costs including economic costs, celibacy, dangerous rituals, or by spending time that could be used otherwise. This would suggest that natural selection should act against religious behavior unless it or something else causing religious behavior to have significant advantages.[5]

Religion as an adaptation

Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta have reviewed several of the prominent theories for the adaptive value of religion.[2] Many are "social solidarity theories", which view religion as having evolved to enhance cooperation and cohesion within groups. Group membership in turn provides benefits which can enhance an individual's chances for survival and reproduction. These benefits range from coordination advantages[4] to the facilitation of costly behavior rules.[3]

The impetus for development of religion for group cohesion is strongly suggested by Edward O. Wilson's theory of "eusociality". He posited that the individuals of a small percentage of species including homo sapiens, ants, termites, bees and a few other species, replicated their genes by adhering to one of a number of competing groups. He further postulates that, in homo sapiens, thanks to their enormous forebrains, there evolved a complex interplay between group evolution and individual evolution within a group.[6]

These social solidarity theories may help to explain the painful or dangerous nature of many religious rituals. Costly-signaling theory suggests that such rituals might serve as public and hard-to-fake signals that an individual's commitment to the group is sincere. Since there would be a considerable benefit in trying to cheat the system - taking advantage of group living benefits without taking on any possible costs - the ritual would not be something simple that can be taken lightly.[2] Warfare is a good example of a cost of group living, and Richard Sosis, Howard C. Kress, and James S. Boster carried out a cross-cultural survey which demonstrated that men in societies which engage in war do submit to the costliest rituals.[7]

Studies that show more direct positive associations between religious practice and health and longevity are more controversial. Harold G. Koenig and Harvey J. Cohen summarized and assessed the results of 100 evidence-based studies that systematically examined the relationship between religion and human well-being, finding that 79% showed a positive influence.[8] These studies are popular in the media, as seen in a recent NPR program including University of Miami Professor Gail Ironson's findings that belief in God and a strong sense of spirituality were good predictors of a lower viral load and improved immune cell levels in HIV patients.[9] However, Dr. Richard P. Sloan of Columbia University was quoted in the New York Times as saying that "...there is no really good compelling evidence that there is a relationship between religious involvement and health."[10] There is still debate over the validity of these findings, and they do not necessarily prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between religion and health. Mark Stibich claims there is a clear correlation but the reason for it is unclear.[11] A criticism of such placebo effects, as well as the advantage of religion giving a sense of meaning, is that it seems likely that less complex mechanisms than religious behavior could achieve such goals.[5]

Religion as a by-product

Stephen Jay Gould cites religion as an example of an exaptation or spandrel, but he does not himself select a definite trait which he thinks was actually acted on by natural selection. He does, however, bring up Freud's suggestion that our large brains, which evolved for other reasons, led to consciousness. The beginning of consciousness forced humans to deal with the concept of personal mortality. Religion may have been one solution to this problem.[12]

Other researchers have proposed specific psychological processes which may have been co-opted for religion. Such mechanisms may include the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm (agent detection), the ability to come up with causal narratives for natural events (etiology), and the ability to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions (theory of mind). These three adaptations (among others) allow human beings to imagine purposeful agents behind many observations that could not readily be explained otherwise, e.g. thunder, lightning, movement of planets, complexity of life.[13]

Pascal Boyer suggests, in his book Religion Explained, that there is no simple explanation for religious consciousness. He builds on the ideas of cognitive anthropologists Dan Sperber and Scott Atran, who argued that religious cognition represents a by-product of various evolutionary adaptations, including folk psychology. He argues that one such factor is that it has, in most cases, been advantageous for humans to remember "minimally counter-intuitive" concepts which are somewhat different from the daily routine and somewhat violate innate expectations about how the world is constructed. A god that is in many aspects like humans but much more powerful is such a concept, while the often much more abstract god discussed at length by theologians is often too counter-intuitive. Experiments support that religious people think about their god in anthropomorphic terms even if this contradicts the more complex theological doctrines of their religion.[5]

Pierre Lienard and Pascal Boyer suggest that humans have evolved a "hazard-precaution system" which allows us to detect potential threats in the environment and attempt to respond appropriately.[14] Several features of ritual behaviors, often a major feature of religion, are held to trigger this system. These include the occasion for the ritual, often the prevention or elimination of danger or evil, the harm believed to result from nonperformance of the ritual, and the detailed proscriptions for proper performance of the ritual. Lienard and Boyer discuss the possibility that a sensitive hazard-precaution system itself may have provided fitness benefits, and that religion then "associates individual, unmanageable anxieties with coordinated action with others and thereby makes them more tolerable or meaningful".

Justin L. Barrett in Why Would Anyone Believe in God? suggests that belief in God is natural because it depends on mental tools possessed by all human beings. He suggests that the way our minds are structured and develop make belief in the existence of a supreme god with properties such as being superknowing, superpowerful and immortal highly attractive. He also compares belief in God to belief in other minds, and devotes a chapter to looking at the evolutionary psychology of atheism. He suggests that one of the fundamental mental modules in the brain is the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD), another potential system for identifying danger. This HADD may confer a survival benefit even if it is over-sensitive: it is better to avoid an imaginary predator than be killed by a real one. This would tend to encourage belief in ghosts and spirits.[15]

Though hominids probably began using their emerging cognitive abilities to meet basic needs like nutrition and mates, Terror Management Theory argues that this happened before they had reached the point where significant self (and thus end-of-self) awareness arose. Death awareness became a highly disruptive byproduct of prior adaptive functions. The resulting anxiety threatened to undermine these very functions and thus needed amelioration. Any social formation or practice that was to be widely accepted by the masses needed to provide a means of managing this terror. The main strategy to do so was to "become an individual of value in a world of meaning…acquiring self-esteem [via] the creation and maintenance of culture", as this would counter the sense of insignificance represented by death and provide 1) symbolic immortality through the legacy of a culture that lives on beyond the physical self ("earthly significance") 2) literal immortality, the promise of an afterlife or continued existence featured in religions ("cosmic significance").[16]

Religion as a Meme

Richard Dawkins suggests in The Selfish Gene that cultural memes function like genes in that they are subject to natural selection. In The God Delusion Dawkins further argues that because religious truths cannot be questioned, their very nature encourages religions to spread like "mind viruses". In such a conception, it is necessary that the individuals who are unable to question their beliefs are more biologically fit than individuals who are capable of questioning their beliefs. Thus, it could be concluded that sacred scriptures or oral traditions created a behavioral pattern that elevated biological fitness for believing individuals. Individuals who were capable of challenging such beliefs, even if the beliefs were enormously improbable, became rarer and rarer in the population. (See denialism.)

This model holds that religion is the byproduct of the cognitive modules in the human brain that arose in our evolutionary past to deal with problems of survival and reproduction. Initial concepts of supernatural agents may arise in the tendency of humans to "overdetect" the presence of other humans or predators (momentarily mistaking a vine for a snake). For instance, a man might report that he felt something sneaking up on him, but it vanished when he looked around.[17]

Stories of these experiences are especially likely to be retold, passed on and embellished due to their descriptions of standard ontological categories (person, artifact, animal, plant, natural object) with counterintuitive properties (humans that are invisible, houses that remember what happened in them, etc.). These stories become even more salient when they are accompanied by activation of non-violated expectations for the ontological category (houses that "remember" activates our intuitive psychology of mind; i.e. we automatically attribute thought processes to them).[18]

One of the attributes of our intuitive psychology of mind is that humans are interested in the affairs of other humans. This may result in the tendency for concepts of supernatural agents to inevitably cross connect with human intuitive moral feelings (evolutionary behavioral guidelines). In addition, the presence of dead bodies creates an uncomfortable cognitive state in which dreams and other mental modules (person identification and behavior prediction) continue to run decoupled from reality producing incompatible intuitions that the dead are somehow still around. When this is coupled with the human predisposition to see misfortune as a social event (as someone's responsibility rather than the outcome of mechanical processes) it may activate the intuitive "willingness to make exchanges" module of the human theory of minds resulting in the tendency of humans to try to interact and bargain with their supernatural agents (ritual).[19]

In a large enough group, some individuals will seem better skilled at these rituals than others and will become specialists. As the societies grow and encounter others, competition will ensue and a "survival of the fittest" effect may cause the practitioners to modify their concepts to provide a more abstract, more widely acceptable version. Eventually the specialist practitioners form a cohesive group or guild with its attendant political goals (religion).[19]

See also


  1. ^ Steadman, L.; Palmer, C. (2008). The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success. Paradigm.
  2. ^ a b c Sosis, R.; Alcorta, C. (2003). "Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: the evolution of religious behavior". Evolutionary Anthropology. 12 (6): 264–274. doi:10.1002/evan.10120.
  3. ^ a b Watts, Joseph; Greenhill, Simon J.; Atkinson, Quentin D.; Currie, Thomas E.; Bulbulia, Joseph; Gray, Russell D. (2015-04-07). "Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences. 282 (1804): 20142556. doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.2556. PMC 4375858. PMID 25740888.
  4. ^ a b Dávid-Barrett, Tamás; Carney, James (2015-08-14). "The deification of historical figures and the emergence of priesthoods as a solution to a network coordination problem". Religion, Brain & Behavior. 0 (0): 1–11. doi:10.1080/2153599X.2015.1063001. ISSN 2153-599X.
  5. ^ a b c The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, Edited by Robin Dunbar and Louise Barret, Oxford University Press, 2007, Chapter 44 The Evolution of Religion by Joseph A. Bulbulia
  6. ^ Wilson, Edward O. (2007). The Social Conquest of Earth. Liveright. ISBN 978-0871403636.
  7. ^ Sosis, R.; Kress, H. C.; Boster, J. S. (2007). "Scars for war: evaluating alternative signaling explanations for cross-cultural variance in ritual costs". Evolution and Human Behavior. 28 (4): 234–247. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2007.02.007.
  8. ^ Koenig, Harold G.; Cohen, Harvey J. (2001). The Link between Religion and Health: Psychoneuroimmunology and the Faith Factor. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514360-4.
  9. ^ Hagerty, Barbara (2009). "Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person?". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2009-12-19.
  10. ^ Duenwald, Mary (May 7, 2002). "Religion and Health: New Research Revives an Old Debate". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-12-19.
  11. ^ http://longevity.about.com/od/longevityboosters/a/religion_life.htm
  12. ^ Gould, S. J. (1991). "Exaptation: a crucial tool for an evolutionary psychology". Journal of Social Issues. 47: 43–65. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1991.tb01822.x.
  13. ^ Atran, S; Norenzayan, A (2004). "Religion's evolutionary landscape: counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion". The Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 27 (6): 713–30, discussion 730–70. doi:10.1017/s0140525x04000172. PMID 16035401. Archived from the original on 2008-08-07.
  14. ^ Lienard, P.; Boyer, P. (2006). "Whence collective rituals? A cultural selection model of ritualized behavior". American Anthropologist. 108: 824–827. doi:10.1525/aa.2006.108.4.814.
  15. ^ Barrett, Justin L. "3". Why Would Anyone Believe in God. ISBN 0-7591-0667-3.
  16. ^ Landau, M. J.; Solomon, S.; Pyszczynski, T.; Greenberg, J. (2007). "On the compatibility of terror management theory and perspectives on human evolution". Evolutionary Psychology. 5: 476–519.
  17. ^ Guthrie, Stewart Elliot (1995). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506901-3.
  18. ^ Boyer, Pascal. "Functional Origins of Religious concepts". Archived from the original on 2009-10-10. Retrieved 2009-12-19.
  19. ^ a b Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-00695-7.

Further reading

External links

Cognitive science of religion

Cognitive science of religion is the study of religious thought and behavior from the perspective of the cognitive and evolutionary sciences. The field employs methods and theories from a very broad range of disciplines, including: cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive anthropology, artificial intelligence, neurotheology, developmental psychology, and archaeology. Scholars in this field seek to explain how human minds acquire, generate, and transmit religious thoughts, practices, and schemas by means of ordinary cognitive capacities.

Divine illumination

According to divine illumination, the process of human thought needs to be aided by divine grace. It is the oldest and most influential alternative to naturalism in the theory of mind and epistemology. It was an important feature of ancient Greek philosophy, Neoplatonism, medieval philosophy, and the Illuminationist school of Islamic philosophy.

Esoteric Christianity

Esoteric Christianity (linked with the Hermetic Corpus since the Renaissance) is an ensemble of Christian theology which proposes that some spiritual doctrines of Christianity can only be understood by those who have undergone certain rites (such as baptism) within the religion. In mainstream Christianity, there is a similar idea that faith is the only means by which a true understanding of God can be gained. The term esoteric was coined in the 17th century and derives from the Greek ἐσωτερικός (esôterikos, "inner").These spiritual currents share some common denominators, such as heterodox or heretical Christian theology; the canonical gospels, various apocalyptic literature, and some New Testament apocrypha as sacred texts; and disciplina arcani, a supposed oral tradition from the Twelve Apostles containing esoteric teachings of Jesus the Christ.

Evolutionary origin of religions

The evolutionary origin of religions and religious behavior is a field of study related to evolutionary psychology, the origin of language and mythology, and cross-cultural comparison of the anthropology of religion. Some subjects of interest include Neolithic religion, evidence for spirituality or cultic behavior in the Upper Paleolithic, and similarities in great ape behavior.

History of Ayyavazhi

The History of Ayyavazhi traces the religious history of Ayyavazhi, a belief-system originated in the mid-19th century in Southern India. Ayyavazhi came to be noticed by the large number of people gathering to worship Ayya Vaikundar in the middle of the 19th century. The majority of the followers of Ayyavazhi were from marginalised and poor sections of society.Right from the beginning of its development Ayyavazhi was seen in competition by the Christian missionaries on their mission. This is evident by the reports on Ayyavazhi presented by the Christian missionaries. Although the majority of the followers of Ayyavazhi were from the Chanar caste (a social group), people of other castes also crowded around Vaikundar. It was not usual at the time for people of different castes to intermingle.

History of religion

The history of religion refers to the written record of human religious experiences and ideas. This period of religious history begins with the invention of writing about 5,200 years ago (3200 BCE). The prehistory of religion involves the study of religious beliefs that existed prior to the advent of written records. One can also study comparative religious chronology through a timeline of religion. Writing played a major role in standardizing religious texts regardless of time or location, and making easier the memorization of prayers and divine rules. The case of the Bible involves the collation of multiple oral texts handed down over the centuries.The concept of "religion" was formed in the 16th and 17th centuries, despite the fact that ancient sacred texts like the Bible, the Quran, and others did not have a word or even a concept of religion in the original languages and neither did the people or the cultures in which these sacred texts were written.The word "religion" as used in the 21st century does not have an obvious pre-colonial translation into non-European languages. The anthropologist Daniel Dubuisson writes that "what the West and the history of religions in its wake have objectified under the name 'religion' is ... something quite unique, which could be appropriate only to itself and its own history". The history of other cultures' interaction with the "religious" category is therefore their interaction with an idea that first developed in Europe under the influence of Christianity.

Literary theory

Literary theory in a strict sense is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing literature. However, literary scholarship since the 19th century often includes—in addition to, or even instead of literary theory in the strict sense—considerations of intellectual history, moral philosophy, social prophecy, and other interdisciplinary themes which are of relevance to the way humans interpret meaning. In the humanities in modern academia, the latter style of scholarship is an outgrowth of critical theory and is often called simply "theory".

As a consequence, the word "theory" has become an umbrella term for a variety of scholarly approaches to reading texts. Many of these approaches are informed by various strands of Continental philosophy and of sociology.

Mystical psychosis

Mystical psychosis is a term coined by Arthur J. Deikman in the early 1970s to characterize first-person accounts of psychotic experiences that are strikingly similar to reports of mystical experiences. According to Deikman, and authors from a number of disciplines, psychotic experience need not be considered pathological, especially if consideration is given to the values and beliefs of the individual concerned. Deikman thought the mystical experience was brought about through a "deautomatization" or undoing of habitual psychological structures that organize, limit, select, and interpret perceptual stimuli. There may be several causes of deautomatization—exposure to severe stress, substance abuse or withdrawal, and mood disorders.A first episode of mystical psychosis is often very frightening, confusing and distressing, particularly because it is an unfamiliar experience. For example, researchers have found that people experiencing paranormal and mystical phenomena report many of the symptoms of panic attacks.On the basis of comparison of mystical experience and psychotic experience Deikman came to a conclusion that mystical experience can be caused by "deautomatization" or transformation of habitual psychological structures which organize, limit, select and interpret perceptional incentives that is interfaced to heavy stresses and emotional shocks. He described usual symptoms of mystical psychosis which consist in strengthening of a receptive mode and weakening of a mode of action.

People susceptible to mystical psychosis become much more impressible. They feel a unification with society, with the world, God, and also feel washing out the perceptive and conceptual borders. Similarity of mystical psychosis to mystical experience is expressed in sudden, distinct and very strong transition to a receptive mode. It is characterized with easing the subject—object distinction, sensitivity increase and nonverbal, lateral, intuitive thought processes.Deikman's opinion that experience of mystical experience in itself can't be a sign to psychopathology, even in case of this experience at the persons susceptible to neurophysiological and psychiatric frustration, in many respects defined the relation to mystical experiences in modern psychology and psychiatry.

Deikman considered that all-encompassing unity opened in mysticism can be all-encompassing unity of reality.

Neuroscience of religion

The neuroscience of religion, also known as neurotheology and as spiritual neuroscience, attempts to explain religious experience and behaviour in neuroscientific terms. It is the study of correlations of neural phenomena with subjective experiences of spirituality and hypotheses to explain these phenomena. This contrasts with the psychology of religion which studies mental, rather than neural, states.

Proponents of the neuroscience of religion say there is a neurological and evolutionary basis for subjective experiences traditionally categorized as spiritual or religious. The field has formed the basis of several popular science books, but has received criticism from psychologists.

Origin of religion (disambiguation)

Origin of religion may refer to:

Development of religion- For the study of social and psychological aspects of how religions develop

History of religion-A history of religion

Evolutionary origins of religion for information on the evolutionary evidence for the when, where and how the first religions may have arisen.

Evolutionary psychology of religion -Describes the psychological factors that could have led to religion during evolution

Outline of religion

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to religion:

Religion – organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.

Outline of spirituality

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to spirituality:

Spirituality may refer to an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality, an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being, or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.”Spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual's inner life; spiritual experience includes that of connectedness with a larger reality, yielding a more comprehensive self; with other individuals or the human community; with nature or the cosmos; or with the divine realm.

Paleolithic religion

Paleolithic religions are a set of spiritual beliefs thought to have appeared during the Paleolithic time period. Paleoanthropologists Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Annette Michelson believe Religious behaviour emerged by the Upper Paleolithic, before 30,000 years ago at the latest, but behavioral patterns such as burial rites that one might characterize as religious — or as ancestral to religious behaviour — reach back into the Middle Paleolithic, as early as 300,000 years ago, coinciding with the first appearance of Homo neanderthalensis and possibly Homo naledi.

There are suggested cases for the first appearance of religious or spiritual experience in the Lower Paleolithic (significantly earlier than 300,000 years ago, pre-Homo sapiens), but these remain controversial and have limited support.

Pascal Boyer

Pascal Robert Boyer is a French and American cognitive anthropologist, mostly known for his work in the cognitive science of religion. He taught at the University of Cambridge for eight years, before taking up the position of Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches classes on psychology and anthropology. He was a Guggenheim Fellow and a visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Lyon, France. He studied philosophy and anthropology at University of Paris and Cambridge, with Jack Goody, working on memory constraints on the transmission of oral literature.

Religion Explained

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought is a 2001 book by cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer, in which the author discusses the evolutionary psychology of religion and evolutionary origin of religions.

Roman School (history of religion)

In the history of religions, the Roman School is a methodology that emerged after World War II and was prominent in Italy throughout the 1950s. It was a competitor to the French structuralist approach.

One of its main characteristics was the ambition to study religion from a neutral or politically aloof perspective. It began with Raffaele Pettazzoni, who had been one of the first academics to propose a historical approach to the study of religion. One of its most influential contributors was Angelo Brelich, whose works on rituals and initiation have had a lasting impact. Other prominent disciples of the Roman School include Dario Sabbatucci and Giulia Piccaluga.The school and its body of work have been examined by later scholars including Giampiera Arrigoni (2003, "Il ritorno di Angelo Brelich", Mythos 11:3-8) and Marcello Massenzio (2005, "The Italian school of 'history of religions'", Religion 35:209-222).

Spiritual but not religious

"Spiritual but not religious" (SBNR), also known as "Spiritual but not affiliated" (SBNA), is a popular phrase and initialism used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that takes issue with organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion, but in contemporary usage spirituality has often become associated with the interior life of the individual, placing an emphasis upon the well-being of the "mind-body-spirit",

while religion refers to organizational or communal dimensions.

Spiritual practice

A spiritual practice or spiritual discipline (often including spiritual exercises) is the regular or full-time performance of actions and activities undertaken for the purpose of inducing spiritual experiences and cultivating spiritual development. A common metaphor used in the spiritual traditions of the world's great religions is that of walking a path. Therefore, a spiritual practice moves a person along a path towards a goal. The goal is variously referred to as salvation, liberation or union (with God). A person who walks such a path is sometimes referred to as a wayfarer or a pilgrim.

Timeline of Jainism

Jainism is an ancient Indian religion belonging to the śramaṇa tradition. It prescribes ahimsa (non-violence) towards all living beings to the greatest possible extent. The three main teachings of Jainism are ahimsa, anekantavada (non-absolutism), aparigraha (non-possessiveness). Followers of Jainism take five main vows: ahimsa, satya (not lying), asteya (non stealing), brahmacharya (chastity), and aparigraha. Monks follow them completely whereas śrāvakas (householders) observe them partially. Self-discipline and asceticism are thus major focuses of Jainism.

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